Comic Fodder

Tpull’s Top Ten Mini-Series of 2008

My plan was to have this ready by the 31st, but a fever struck me down and made it near impossible to sit in front of a computer, think and type at the same time. So I’m a little tardy, and I have to ask for your pardon. At least I’m getting my dose of sickness out of the way early in the new year! Oh, and the regular weekly reviews start up again this week, as the delivery schedule returns to normal. Now, for the best recommendations of 2008 from Marvel's and DC's reading stacks:

1. Avengers/Invaders

My initial inclination was to see if I could review only those mini-series that had started and ended in 2008, but the more I looked, the more I realized that there was at least one more issue to go by the end of the year, but the winners were still clear, even with not having the full story. With that, Avengers/Invaders leads off in the alphabetical order as one of the best of the year.

Alex Ross has put a great deal of thought not just into the painted covers, but in how each of the characters is positioned in relation to each other. Whether it’s the first issue, with it’s homage to parachute-style WW II-era attacks, to the face-off cover of #5, reminiscent of the old Invaders series itself, the covers alone almost make the series worthy of examination. As a bonus, we get to see Steve Rogers again, and who can complain about that? Astute readers will note that Cap’s declarations are a little black-and-white, sounding really close to old-time propaganda that extols the virtues of freedom and democracy, and not reflecting the more recent Steve Rogers with whom we are familiar, who still spoke of those ideals, but not in such a simplistic manner. This is the mark of truth that Jim Krueger has injected into the script, making the ‘40s version of Steve Rogers true to his era in thought and deed, since the Invaders team has been ripped from the past. It is one of the little gems that reveals itself as you read that makes this series worth a look.

Steve Sadowski does a credible job on the interior art, making for an exposition-heavy story flow fairly smoothly. In the meantime, there are spotlights for Namor, Torch and Toro, while Bucky and his modern Cap equivalent also have some time-paradox interaction that may have become the reason Bucky was able to survive the initial rocket explosion that made everyone think he was dead. Interesting enough, the main plot that caused all the trouble is also related to the death of Steve Rogers, and how the world still wants a presence like that around. Although Marvel did a good job of memorializing their dead hero, they have not done a very thorough job of examining what that makes of the world left behind without him, as they have been overly-concentrated on “event” comics. This mini-series looks like it will make up for that in a big way.

2. Civil War: House of M

Here’s a surprise: a mash-up of two Bendis ideas, who would have thought this would turn out to be such a good read? In the regular Marvel universe, the House of M event was not necessarily related to the Civil War, which came later. In the House of M universe, their version of Civil War details Magneto’s rise to power, and fills in a lot of history that shows us how they got to the point where we first saw this alternate reality.

The series is good on two levels. First, Andrea DiVito’s art shines, with particular attention paid to rendering each expression unique and fitting to the moment for each character, whether it’s the Black Widow’s arched eyebrows, or Darkstar’s sharp cheekbones. Second, the continuity Easter eggs: Christos Gage sticks in classic villains like the Blob and Unus, as well as other peons of Magneto from the early days like Peeper and Burner. Longtime fans will notice all sorts of odes to classic team formations, and your mind will automatically fill in some of the details that they can’t quite cover in only five issues.

Two things are interesting to note after reading this series, in relation to the rest of Marvel’s comic world. One, it doesn’t matter if Professor X is on Magneto’s side or not, Magneto will try to conquer the world. No matter what reality we examine, whether Magnus knew Charles or not, whether Charles lived or died, Magnus always seems to arrive at the same conclusion: it’s best to seize power and be in control of everything (with the possible exception of Age of Apocalypse). Two, Marvel has it in for Xavier. It doesn’t matter if it’s this mini-series, the Ultimate universe, or having him get shot in the regular one, I think there is a cadre of people at Marvel that want to do horrible things to Professor X.

At this point with all of the House of M visitations in comics, someone can have fun on the internet and put together a listing of how best to read them if the fans want to read them in chronological order, the way events occur, as opposed to the actual dates of publication.

3. Final Crisis: Revelations

While it is only my opinion, the “big” events that the big two companies have tried to foist on us have been sorely lacking in some essential storytelling basics, which is where some of these mini-series come into play. FC: Revelations helps to explain a large chunk of what is missing in the rest of the Crisis in the way of explanation. Bad enough Morrison has skipped over what could have been some monumental action sequences, but he managed to leave out a lot of explanations too. Greg Rucka fills in the religious/philosophical portion of the agenda, starting off with a dramatic ending of Doctor Light’s life by the Spectre. Now, as cool and deserved as this was, five bucks says DC finds some inane reason to resurrect the bad doctor within a couple months. But I digress…

Rucka gets to handle a couple of characters he had stewarded back when he was writing Gotham Central, Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya. Man, strange stuff happens to you when you’re a cop in Gotham, doesn’t it? Rucka ties in the Crime Bible mini-series he did with Renee as the new Question, shows us a little of the much-neglected Batwoman, and introduces us to another aspect of God, His Mercy. The Crime Bible aspect carries an interesting revision to DC, as it turns out that Vandal Savage is allegedly Cain (one supposes at this point they are referring to the Biblical Cain), which markedly improves Savage’s significance, and even brings the spear of destiny into play.

Another feature taking center stage here more than most other tie-ins is the effect that the anti-life equation has upon the populace as it spreads. Philip Tan’s style helps to highlight these scenes particularly, with complementary inking by Jonathon Glapion to help emphasize the “dark” happenings. Through it all, the spirits that play are secondary to the humans, and Rucka makes sure to explain that God Himself will not intervene, because this battle is all about freedom and choice, and even Cain is still human. With the exception of a spelling error in issue #4, the series is without blemish.

Although issue #5 has yet to come out, the combination of excellent art and gripping story have guaranteed this is one of the better limited series out on the stands for 2008. Rucka has found a way not only to tie in all of his characters with the Final Crisis meta-story, but also to help enhance the FC storyline itself, with the Spectre’s reciting of the anti-life equation helping to explain why even some magical heroes have fallen prey to it. Even more impressive, Rucka has managed to write intelligently about religion within the perspective of a fictional world where magic is commonplace, and entities like the Spectre and Mercy exist; and with that, it all makes sense. This is a great story on multiple levels.

4. Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge

Geoff Johns strikes again, this time with the talented artist Scott Kolins at hand to portray the hate-to-love-them Rogues. Only three issues, this story focuses on the unique place that people like Captain Cold inhabit in the DC universe. Over the past few years, the Rogues have grown as they have been handled by various writers, until they have manifested themselves as a clique in their own right, far more than the simplistic stereotypical bad guys that most classic villains start out as at DC. Cold and company have turned down Libra’s invitation to join, partly because they are their own group, but partly because they don’t want to bring down heat for killing a super-hero. After the events in Identity Crisis and the subsequent mess with killing Bart, the Rogues want to fly below the radar more than ever.

This mini-series showcases the mob-like familial aspect of the Rogues, with them professionally taking down some imitation upstarts, unafraid to cross the cosmically powerful Libra. Johns also squeezes in the alternate philosophy of the new Professor Zoom, and explains why he hates the Rogues, and what a difference he sees between them and himself. One of the wonderful parts of the entire series is the faith that Cold has in the heroes, as he tells Libra that Darkseid will get his butt kicked. All this, and the Rogues claim to be “even” for Bart’s death with the slaying of Inertia.

For those who might still be tempted to skip this series, something that Flash fans should know: this story plays a part in the planned “reboot” of the Flash that Geoff Johns is handling with Flash: Rebirth in the new year. Get ready for Flash to become good again!

5. Iron Man: Legacy of Doom

A blend of old and new, this mini-series is a sequel of sorts to a great classic Iron Man story, a team-up of sorts between Iron Man and Doctor Doom involving time travel. David Michelinie and Bob Layton return, with Layton adding some great inks to Ron Lim’s pencils, making for a visual delight, including a mystic rune-enhanced version of the Iron Man armor that looks awesome. The idea of these two armor-themed characters facing off has always been an attractive one, but an idea that is seldom seized upon by Marvel’s horde of writers.

Doctor Doom is at his devious best, tricking Tony into Hell, and Tony is resourceful enough to find his way back. All of these twists are to provide Doom with the means of defeating a sorcerous threat that Doom himself brought down upon the planet. In the middle of all of this, there is a great exchange between Doom and Tony that helps to bridge the gap between science and magic. At the end, Merlin brings things to a relevant close, trying to wipe Tony’s memory, in case he should ever change and covet the power of the magical item, hinting at the events of Civil War and beyond. This is one series that has great elements for both longtime fans and brand new readers alike.

6. Secret Invasion: Inhumans

While Marvel’s main title event had some problems, this mini-series had none. Black Bolt had been one of the Illuminati who had paid a visit to the Skrulls in the past; he was also one of the ones taken captive and impersonated by the Skrulls. Joe Pokaski starts off the series by showcasing the corpse of the Skrull Black Bolt, and then follows it up with a full-scale Skrull invasion of Attilan. Gripping covers by Stjepan Sejic and gorgeous interior art by Tom Raney make for an eyefeast (copyright dibs on the new word!), highlighted by one of my favorite inkers, Scott Hanna.

Every member of the royal family is given great screen time, with the madness of Maximus put in an interesting light, and Medusa getting the chance to take charge in Black Bolt’s absence. Interspersed through it all is some delicious torture by a sadistic Skrull scientist who tries to duplicate and artificially re-create Black Bolt’s powers. The unexpected gem comes from Medusa’s interaction with Ronan the Accuser, bringing into play the old history between the Inhumans and the Kree, very relevant here considering the ancient enmity between the Kree and the Skrulls.

More happens in this one mini-series to move the Inhumans forward than any other story in the past two decades. It also marks a huge but realistic shift in their attitude as they launch a retaliatory attack upon the Skrull empire. This series leads into the next Marvel mini-event, War of Kings, an event that I am actually looking forward to just based on the concept alone, not the hype. If Marvel does things well, this series will be seen as the launching pad for the Inhumans to join the new galactic cast that has been developed in the past two years. Can crossovers with Nova and the Guardians of the Galaxy be far behind?

7. Secret Invasion: Thor

Hey, the Skrulls planned a long time for a simultaneous attack, taking into consideration the Inhumans on the moon. This series shows us what plans they were able to cobble together when Asgard showed up on Earth. Brilliant cover art by Gabriele Dell’Otto give us dramatic introductions to a great three-issue tale. Matt Fraction packs a lot into three issues: the re-introduction of Beta Ray Bill, the unending trickery of Loki, even to his(/her?) own possible detriment, the effect of Asgard being so close to an American town… Doug Braithwaite does a wonderful job on interior art, whether it’s big battle scenes between Skrulls and Asgardians, or the regular town folk who want to go help their neighbors.

It ends with a battle royale, showing us how a fight with a super-Skrull should be, as opposed to something like Ms. Marvel making mince-meat out of hundreds of super-powered Skrulls by the page, we have one impressive foe that can take on both Thor and Beta Ray. One of the best stories to come from the entire Secret Invasion event.

8. The Twelve

You might think it would be hard to take so many ancient comic characters that, even among themselves, seem slightly redundant, and make it into a good story. Well, they did it. J. Michael Straczynski has pulled a dozen of the earliest characters from Timely Comics’ Golden Age and put them all together as a WW II task force that was captured and put in suspended animation by the Germans. Discovered and revived, we get to see their reintroduction into society, with the specter of the Superhuman Registration Act in the background.

The characters play according to their roots, as people from yesterday who tend to believe their government more often than not, and trust in them. Each issue drives home the various problems that each one faces, whether it’s facing that family and loved ones have died, that their old-time notions of justice and (in)tolerance are interpreted a little bit differently by some of modern society. Mixed in is a delightful diatribe against the world we live in today, and how it can seem… unworthy of what our forefathers sacrificed in order to give us the freedom we have today.

Chris Weston is in rare form, giving us nice, current covers that are represented in the form of classic Golden Age covers, while inside he has modeled each character on the template of a different celebrity in one way or another. The art style is perfect for the mood and setting of these characters, which is all gearing up to end with the reveal of a murder mystery. As loathe as I might normally be to do any type of comparisons, I do have to concede that the feel of this series is Watchman-esque, in a good way.

9. X-Men: Magneto Testament

The story is familiar in more than one way. It’s an origin story for Magneto, and fans have been treated to a number of portrayals of their favorite villain in his more formative years, but this is the first fleshed out attempt to show him as a child (a few seconds on the movie screen doesn’t quite count, although it was a great stage-setter). There are also abundant stories that describe what the Holocaust was like for Jews. Greg Pak takes the given backdrop for Magneto’s history and genuinely moves you to feel for the poor souls in the pages.

Carmine Di Giandomenico uses a disturbingly apt style to portray the gauntness of the prisoners, and to strike home the horrors such as forcing the imprisoned to incinerate the corpses of their own former bunkmates. Matt Hollingsworth uses color well, with a Schindler’s List style of painting things in drab gray and black and white, with vibrant colors very sparse, but catching your attention whenever they are used.

Pak and company have studied their history books very closely, and I cannot find an inaccuracy in their descriptions yet (Note that I am a heavy reader of history, but a relative youngster, so I have no first-hand knowledge other than what I have come across in the history books, and in some conversations with WW II-era people|). The end result is that you mostly forget about Magnus himself (his real name, Max, is finally settled on here), and get wrapped up in a tale of despair to give the hardiest person a heartache.

Two things come to mind when I stop to think. One, in Comic Land, you may not agree with Magneto, but with this perspective as his motivation, his methods and his motivations are very clear, even if we can’t quite agree with him on the means. Two, in the real world, a reminder that some of these brutalities still go on in some countries of the world, and our mantra of “never again” means nothing, since it actually goes on all the time. One of the best, but somber reads of the year.

10. Trinity

Trinity is a tough fit for a mini-series, because heck, at 52 issues by its final run, it will have lasted longer than half of DC’s regular monthly titles! Also, on its publishing schedule, it actually comes out more often than even the Amazing Spider-Man, which is an ongoing series. Still, it is a set number of pre-defined issues, and it’s already halfway over, and it was one of the best books I would look forward to reading every week for the rest of 2008. So I think it fits.

There are so many aspects of this series that I could probably write a college essay on it at this point. Do we want to discuss the continuity Eater eggs that are buried in every page? The fact that it’s published on time every week(!)? The emphasis it gives on defining the importance of DC’s big three characters, ad their place in the universe? The awesome art, mostly in the front by Mark Bagley?

Let’s just stop there, and say every DC fan needs to read this series at some point, whether now or in final collected form. Kurt Busiek has thought long and hard about what Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman mean, and is crafting a great story that shows how fundamental they are to the very fabric that is the DC universe, complete with sorcery and science intermixed.

DC started this format with 52, a big risk at the time tat paid off with great art and storytelling. They went off the deep end with Countdown, and it may take years for fans to forgive them for that (the smart thing us longtime fans do is ignore what we don’t like and pretend it never happened). Will DC do a weekly series after Trinity has run its course? Maybe not immediately, but if they can be anywhere close to as good as Trinity is, I hope they’ll try it again sometime.
Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.